30 September 2019

Homer-Prone Kimbrel the Impetus for Maddon's Firing

The Cubs had a really rough second half, largely owing to the ineffectiveness of their closer, Craig Kimbrel, signed to a three year contract in the middle of the season after sitting out the first half.  The Cubs had won 95 games last season, making the playoffs for the fourth straight season (a Cubs record), and much was expected of them this year, from both pundits and fans. 

And things were looking pretty good.  They were tied for first place in the NL Central on June 7th, the day they signed Kimbrel.  He was a big name, with a long track record of success, at least 30 Saves every season back to 2011, with a strikeout rate that never dipped below 13 per 9IP, and an ERA that only once exceeded the 2.74 he put up for the World Champion Red Sox in 2018.  He led his league in Saves four times in a row, winning Rookie of the Year honors in the first of those.  He won a championship with Boston last year, despite some shakiness in the winning of it.

He took a few weeks to make it up to the majors, pitching well in four outings for AAA Iowa before getting called up to the majors and debuting on the 27th of June.  He pitched well there too, but not for long.  He soon began blowing Saves left and right it seemed, taking four losses while compiling an ERA of almost seven. 

Even more alarmingly, he's surrendered nine homers in just 20 innings and change. 

This, it turns out, is fairly unique.  There have only been 14 pitchers in history who have allowed a homer rate of 3.9/9IP or more while pitching at least 20 innings. 

They're an odd bunch, and interestingly, all since the year 2000.  I guess before that anyone giving up homers so often didn't get a chance to pitch 20 innings. 

Six of the 14 were in their first or second major league season.  Five others were in their final or penultimate MLB season.  (Three of them qualify as both, owing to short careers.)  Only three of the 14, other than Kimbrel, have had a modicum of success in the majors after a season like this, though the jury is still out on a few of them.  The details of each are as follows: 

  • Mike Lincoln, age 25 in 2000, had a couple of years of growing pains when he first got to the majors with the Twins, and got released before the Pirates picked him up and helped him figure... something out.  He had a couple of decent years as a useful bullpen cog for a couple of forgettable Bucs teams, compiling 112 innings with a 2.96 ERA at the height of the Steroid Era in 2001-2002.  He struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness for the next half dozen years, with an ERA over 5.5 while pitching just 166.2 innings total over that span.  He was out of baseball in 2010.  
  • Jim Parque, age 27, had been a first round draft pick in 1997 and had won 13 games for the White Sox in 2000, but by 2002 he was still trying - unsuccessfully, it would prove - to regain his prior form after a shoulder injury and surgery had derailed his career.  He surrendered 11 homers in 25 innings of work that year, for an ERA of almost 10, and would pitch only 17 more innings in the major leagues, for the Rays, in 2003.  He was out of organized ball after the 2004 season, and his comeback attempt in 2007 lasted only 11 games with Seattle's AAA team.   
  • Tim Worrell, by 2006, though he had amassed over 950 innings already in 13 previous MLB seasons, he was 38 years old and proving that pro baseball is a young man's game.  His nine homers allowed in 20.1 major league innings showed the Giants that he clearly did not belong in a MLB uniform anymore, and they released him at the end of June.  
  • Anthony Vasquez, well, you could be forgiven if you don't remember him.  He's the only guy on this list who was only in the majors for a single season, which is a little surprising.  He only spent about five weeks in the majors, for a Mariners team that lost 95 games in 2011.  Amazingly, Vasquez was only in seven games, but got the decision in all of them, going 1-6.  That, as it happens, is the most games for any pitcher who has gotten a decision in every game of his career in over 100 years.  He's kicked around the minors and foreign winter leagues ever since, played for five different organizations besides Seattle, but has never gotten the call back up to the big leagues.  
  • Brett Myers had already won 97 games in the majors and compiled 40 Saves from 2002 to 2012, but by 2013 he was apparently toast.  He gave up 10 homers in 21 innings, pitching parts of four games, and was released by the Tribe.  He's been out of baseball ever since.  
  • Kirby Yates was only in his second year in the majors with the Rays, having had a fairly successful rookie year in 2014 (3.75 ERA in 36 IP), but he had one heckuva sophomore slump.  After surrendering 10 homers in a shade over 20 innings that year, the Rays sold him to Cleveland in November, and then they sold him to the Yankees in January, before he had ever thrown a pitch for them.  He was not particularly good for the Yankees either, who waived him in October.  The Angels did the same in 2017 and he went to San Diego, where he has put together three good seasons, gotten promoted to be their closer, and they're now discussing a long term deal.  So good for him.  
  • John Moscot, Dillon Overton and Erik Johnson were all in their mid-20's in 2016 and either in their first or last year in the major leagues.  
    • Moscot, a smart, polished college pitcher from Pepperdine, made his MLB debut at 23 in 2015 but a year later could not keep the ball in the park, surrendering 22 runs in 21 innings, including ten homers, which is a lot, even for a Reds pitcher. He took a couple of years to rehab after Tommy John surgery, and has not pitched professionally since, working for the Reds as a coach or instructor or something.  He is now pitching for and helping to promote Israel's Olympic baseball team, which is pretty cool.    
    • Overton was another polished college pitcher, drafted by Oakland in the second round in 2013 - who worked his way back from a mid-2013 Tommy John surgery and still managed to get batters out despite reduced velocity.  He climbed the A's ladder quickly, earning a call up to the majors just two years after his minor league debut, but was rocked for a dozen homers in just 24 innings of work, and was designated for assignment and traded to Seattle shortly thereafter.  He pitched poorly for Seattle and its minor league affiliates for a couple of years, then got picked up by the Padres.  Still just 26 years old, he pitched well in 2018 (8-2 with a 2.90 ERA in almost 100 innings) but was, alas, accomplishing it all with smoke and mirrors, having fanned just 48 batters in over 80 innings in the PCL.  The decision to use the Titleist-like major league ball for the highest level of the minors in 2019 was disastrous for Overton, who allowed 25 homers in 115 innings, for a 5.46 ERA, though somehow he still managed to go 10-5.   
    • Johnson, another polished college pitcher drafted in the second round, out of Berkley in his case, had impressed enough over the course of his minor league career to keep getting called up to pitch for the White Sox, albeit only for 5 or 6 games a year, every year from 2013 to 2015.  In 2016 he was traded along with Fernando Tatis, Jr. to the Padres for James Shields.*  Anyway, for Johnson, that 2016 season was a doozy, in which he gave up 14 homers in 31 innings and change before blowing out his elbow.  He missed all of 2017 rehabbing after (stop me if you've heard this one...) Tommy John surgery.  He pitched 40 decent innings as a reliever for the Padres' AA and AAA affiliates in 2018, but did not pitch professionally this year.  Interestingly, Johnson is the only one on this list who pitched for more than one team in the season in which he gave up homers at such an alarming rate.  That means the Padres watched him surrender 5 homers in just 11 innings of work in 2016 after allowing 8 in 35 innings in 2015), and decided they wanted him anyway.  They were rewarded by seeing him pitch even worse, and this in the best pitcher's park in the majors.  He surrendered 9 more homers in less than 20 innings for the Padres, and has not thrown a pitch in MLB since.  His Wikipedia page says he's a free agent, which, I guess if you're using that to advertise your services, you may be on the way out.  
* Now there's a trade I imagine the Pale Hose will regret for a long time, though not for the loss of Johnson.  Shields went 16-35 with a 5.31 ERA over three seasons for them and Tatis tore up the minor leagues for a couple years, then leapfrogged AAA entirely and played like a Rookie of the Year candidate before he got hurt in August. 
  • Shawn Kelley had already compiled a record of 19-19 with four Saves and a 3.67 ERA in parts of seven MLB seasons for three different teams by the time 2016 rolled around, which is to say that he'd been decent-but-forgettable.*  He parlayed one good season with San Diego into a three-year deal with the Nationals, and rewarded them with his best season yet in 2016, with a 2.64 ERA and 80 K's in 56 innings, including three Wins and seven Saves.  He was however the pitcher who gave up the two-run triple that Justin Turner hit in the deciding game of the NLDS  against the Dodgers that year, and reportedly had some arm "discomfort" when he was removed from that game, and suffered through various ailments in 2017, which might help explain how that became his worst season.  He compiled a Boeing ERA (7.27) while serving up a dozen homers in just 26 innings of work.  In 2018 he had been pitching pretty well (3.34 ERA in 32.1 innings) but earned the ire of basically everyone in Washington when he threw a temper tantrum after allowing a homer in a game in which the Nats had been leading 25-1 at the end of July.  He was DFA'ed a few days later and the Nats evidently thought so little of him that they traded him to Oakland for International Bonus Slot Money.**  Anyway, he was tried as the closer and setup man for the Rangers this season, and still allows too many homers (12 in 47 innings in 2019) but not like he did two years ago.  

* I, for one, entirely forgot that he pitched for the Yankees for two years, in 2013 and 2014, though in my defense, those were two of the more forgettable Yankees teams in recent memory, the only time they've missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since the Wild Card was implemented in 1994.

**Which isn't even a real thing.  I mean, forget being traded for cash, this is being traded for permission to spend your own cash, something the A's don't actually have in the first place.

  • Andrew Heaney, a first-round draft pick by the Marlins in 2012, was sent to one LA team (the Dodgers in the Dee Gordon trade) in December 2014 and then, five hours later, to the Angels, straight up for Howie Kendrick.  He looked like a legit prospect in 2015 but got hurt and needed (surprise!) Tommy John surgery in 2016, and was not yet particularly effective when he made his comeback in 2017, allowing 12 homers in not quite 22 innings.  He made it all the way back, logging 180 innings of league average work in 2018, including a one-hitter on his birthday, which must have been cool.  He suffered from more injuries this year, logging only 95 innings in the majors, one of many reasons the Angels were not as competitive as they had hoped to be in 2019.   
  • Drew Gagnon is still technically a rookie, having logged only 35 innings for the Mets over parts of the 2018 and 2019 season, but his performance did not exactly inspire much confidence in the Mets' staff or its fans, I would think.  He pitched to a 2.33 ERA, allowing only 12 homers in 89 innings at AAA Syracuse, but then surrendered 11 homers in just 23 innings in the majors.  It's not like was serving them up to just anybody, either.  Other than Odubel Herrera, who hit his only homer of the season off Gagnon (turns out he's better at hitting girlfriends than baseballs...) everyone who homered off him had at least 12 dingers on the year, and the group averaged almost 25 homers for the year, if you include Freddy Freeman twice.  He's not super young, at 29, but is still under team control, for whatever that's worth.  Maybe he'll pan out after some growing pains, or maybe he'll benefit if they go back to using baseballs that don't immediately turn and fly away screaming at the sight of a baseball bat.    
  • Dan Straily is an 8-year veteran, a journeyman who has won 10 or more games in the majors three times, and no doubt the woeful Orioles hoped he would provide some stability in the rotation.  However, after 47 innings, during which he had allowed an AL-leading 22 homers, even Baltimore had seen enough.  He got DFA'ed and then traded to Philly in June where he languished in AAA for the rest of the season.  Only 30, and with a dozen decent starts for Lehigh Valley, he presumably feels like he can still contribute in the majors, but that remains to be seen.
  • And last, but not least, Craig Kimbrel.  😒
Easily the most expensive, highest profile guy with the greatest track record on this list, Kimbrel perhaps just seemed a little rusty when he got called up in late June, but that rust never got scraped off or painted over, and he's a large part of the reason the Cubs are not playing for the Wild Card right now. 

Three of his four losses came against NL Central contenders, one against Milwaukee in July and then two in three days against the Cards in September, leaving the Cubs three games out with seven left to play. Save just those two games and Chicago is still within one game of the Wild Card with a week left in the season. 

Instead, Joe Maddon never used him again.  Unable to trust his bullpen, he tried to stretch Yu Darvish the next day, an ill-advised gamble to say the least.  Darvish had not pitched more than eight innings in a game since June 11th.  Of 2014!  Five years and two long DL stints (including one for Tommy John surgery) ago.  He has only two complete games in his entire career and the other "complete" game was a 4.1 inning rain-shortened affair against the Yankees in July of the same year.  So this was a Bad Idea, and the Cardinals made him pay for it.

Then the Cubs somehow allowed themselves to get swept by the Pirates, who lost 93 games this season.  By the time the Cardinals hosted them and dropped two of three in the season's final series, it no longer mattered.  They finished five games behind the Brewers for the second Wild Card (and two behind the Mets and one behind the Diamondbacks, just to be fair) but perhaps with Kimbrel not turning from one of the premier closers in baseball into a walking dumpster fire in less than a year, they might have made a late push and gotten themselves into the playoffs again. 

And Joe Maddon might not be out of a job. 

The irony there being that Maddon is not the one who signed Kimbrel.  

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